If you ask a woman the last time she spoke to her mother — a woman who is still lucky enough to have her mother — it might be that very morning or a few weeks prior. But if you rephrase and ask the last time she had a deep conversation with her mother, the answer will likely be very different. And that’s too bad.
Dr. Rachel Glik, a counselor in Clayton, Missouri, says, “Too often people think their mothers will be here forever. Ask yourself ‘What would I like to know?’ and then go ask your mother while she can still answer. I know for many of my patients, not asking these questions to their mothers when they could have is one of their biggest regrets.”
Why Don’t We Really Talk?
The easy answer for why mothers and daughters don’t have deep conversations is a perceived lack of time. We speak during and in between other activities; it’s rare just to sit and talk for an extended period without interruptions.
Mothers may also avoid deeper conversations with their adult daughters for fear that they will sound pushy or like they are lecturing. Cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf says, “For meaningful conversations to occur, both sides need to listen and tune in.” That means allowing the other person to be honest and candid without fear of judgment or negative opinions. Dr. Leaf says, “The brain is very good at becoming defensive when it feels threatened. When we feel attacked, we shut down or avoid conversations.”
Intimate conversations may not come naturally, especially for women with mothers in their 60s and older. Dr. Glik explains, “The culture was different when they were growing up. They had more of a survival mindset and were less likely to engage in discussing more vulnerable topics.”
Why You Should (or Should Not) Talk
A big mother-daughter sit down may not be right for everyone. Psychoanalyst with the New York Psychoanalytic Institute Dr. Gail Saltz says, “It’s worthwhile having these discussions if intimacy is a doable goal. If the relationship is fairly toxic or the daughter feels the mother is highly critical, it may be healthier to maintain the distance.”
For those with good relationships, being honest and vulnerable with your mother (or daughter) is a great way to improve and build a more meaningful relationship. Leaf says, “Open conversations can also bring closure and a deeper understanding of why things were said and done.”
How to Get the Conversation Started
If you want to get to know your mother better, let her know. Set aside some time alone with no one else (or technology — an intimacy stealer) around. “Depending on how comfortable you are with each other, she may need time to prepare emotionally to speak on a deeper level,” Dr. Glik says. Start the conversation slowly to ease tension and build trust. Dr. Glik says, “It might feel awkward at first and require some effort of both people.”
When speaking with your mother, Dr. Leaf advises “to gauge what she is mentally and emotionally able to handle. Important life lessons you wish to share can also be couched in stories to mitigate any potential negative reaction.” If a conversation seems too awkward, consider writing her a letter, maybe on her birthday or to read at a later date.
Below are some conversation starters. (We promise that once you get going this will be fun.)
5 Good Questions to Ask Your Mother
What’s your story?
We all want to know “Where did I come from?” and your mother’s story is a valuable tool shaping your own identity. Her stories and memories, especially from childhood, early marriage, etc. can provide great insight into both her life and yours.
What’s your best relationship advice?
Human connection is key to happiness. What does your mother think is the cornerstone to healthy, strong relationships?
What is your life philosophy?
We all have a philosophy that guides our lives and influences our choices. Ask your mother what hers is. Find out what accomplishments she is most proud of and the what she hopes her legacy is.
What do you really value about me?
It may sound like fishing for a compliment and that’s okay. Dr. Glik says, “As women, we tend to be hard on ourselves. Hearing how your mother is proud of you or admires you is a treasure a woman can carry with her for the rest of her life.”
What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned so far?
The challenges we face shape our lives. Ask about her mistakes or failures and how she coped. Find out what her tools for resilience are.